'Passage' at the Wilma Theater: E.M. Forster must be turning in his grave

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(Left to right:) Keith Conallen, Taysha Marie Canales, and Lindsay Smiling in “Passage,” through May 13 at the Wilma Theater.

Four years ago I was knocked out by Christopher Chen’s Caught, a brilliant and cynical comedy that is as much about deceiving the audience as about the deceived characters, a multilayered reflection on the inherently deceptive nature of art, a play that made you doubt your eyes and your assumptions. His new work, a world premiere called Passage, is billed as a “fantasia,” presumably to free it from realism; it, too, is filled with deceived characters and intends to provoke the audience into examining the way we deceive ourselves about political oppression.

Passage is based on E.M. Forster’s great 1924 novel, A Passage to India, a novel that is, unlike Chen’s play, subtle, ambiguous, and ironic. Forster captures the complexity of Indian society with its vying religions and languages, creating an opacity frustrating to the British Raj.  In Chen’s play, there is only political wrangling.

The plot of the play is both a reprise of and a sequel to the novel; it takes place not in India but in a country called X, occupied and ruled by a country called Y. Some characters believe citizens of X cannot and should not be friends with citizens of Y; others argue for a less binary, more humanistic approach. The ensemble of arguers includes Keith Conallen, Taysha Marie Canales, and Jaylene Clark Owens. Their characters fling around words like toxic and evil as they accuse each other of complicity, “the refuge of the morally vacant.” Everyone has to take an uncompromising side.

The story begins with F (Krista Apple), a country Y woman who long ago visited the region’s famous caves and had an experience that changed her life. She returns to country X to try to understand that experience, but finds herself unable to reenter the cave. Instead, Q (Justin Jain), visiting his fiancé, R (Ross Beschler), undergoes a similar mystical/terrifying experience during his journey into the cave. The pivot of the plot turns on the presence of B (Lindsay Smiling), a prominent X doctor who is falsely accused of attacking Q and is then imprisoned.

Sarah Gliko plays a talking mosquito and a talking gecko, both with excessive cuteness, and she concludes the play as a professor who insists she is “off script,” and stands, for long minutes saying nothing, insisting on making eye contact with audience members, as she attempts to explain away the mystery of what happened in the cave. Poor old Forster, he must be turning in his grave.

Blanka Zizka directs the Hot House ensemble to speak loudly and distinctly, resulting in unnatural, exaggerated dialogue, and often inviting the audience to laugh and clap approvingly. The set, designed by Matt Saunders, made little sense to me (what are all those shiny black rocks?), and Maria Shaplin’s lighting seems less dramatic than one might expect from a play about caves.

Theater

Passage

    • Through May 13 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $10-$30. Information: 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.